Africa Watch

SA awkward with AU’s commitment to fight Boko Haram

Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, minister of defence
Ministerof Defence.jpg

The AU took a bold and courageous step to commit Africa to fight Boko Haram, but South Africa appears to be a reluctant participant. 

One of the more important decisions taken by the 24th session of the African Union (AU) earlier in the month was to establish a Multi-National Joint Task Force (MNTF) to combat the Islamic fundamentalist Boko Haram group, threatening the existence of the Nigerian state.

Still in its planning stages the MNTF will eventually total 8 700 troops. Most will come from neighbours Chad, Niger, Benin and Cameroon. South Africa’s position appears to be uncertain and clouded by controversy, as has almost become the norm in SA/Nigerian relations. 

Boko Haram’s trail of terror

Since launching its insurgency in 2009 Boko Haram have killed thousands of people and forced more than a million from their homes. International notoriety was gained after the abduction in April 2014 of nearly 300 schoolgirls whose whereabouts are still unknown.

Already controlling vast swathes of northeast Nigeria, Boko Haram August last year declared an Islamic caliphate in the areas it dominates. In recent months it increased cross-border raids into neighbouring countries, threatening regional security with a growing fear in West Africa over the prospect of Boko Haram achieving its stated aim of carving out an Islamic caliphate in the region.

Nigerian army’s failure

The Nigerian army, on paper one of the strongest in Africa, has been spectacularly ineffective in countering Boko Haram in the run-up to Nigerian presidential and parliamentary elections originally planned for 14 February 2015.

Boko Haram’s unrelenting terror campaign compelled the Nigerian government to postpone the elections for six weeks.

Against this backdrop the AU – many claiming it is already too late – showed commitment and agreed to establish the MNTF to assist Nigeria in its war with Boko Haram.

If successful, the MNTF can be a shot in the arm for the AU’s idea of regional peace- keeping forces.

It is essential that the United Nations (UN), especially the Security Council, approves support to the envisaged MNTF. It would expedite the potential for financial, logistical and other necessary support.

The UN’s support is a foregone conclusion and secretary general Ban Ki-moon told the AU that Boko Haram needs to be “addressed with a regional and international co-operation”.

Funding the MNTF remains a problem and it is expected that the UN and Western countries will be the chief contributors.

Arms procurement, however, remains problematic with unwillingness in the West, including the United States (US), to sell arms to Nigeria, due to concerns about corruption and human-rights abuses by the country’s army.

According to Nigerian officials this has not only hampered the Nigerian Army’s ability to fight Boko Haram, but also forced it to buy arms on the black market.

Taking much pride in its role in Africa as the continent’s leading economy, it was a difficult and embarrassing decision for the Nigerian government to agree to external military aid. 

South Africa’s position

In response to the AU’s call on member states to assist Nigeria in its battle against Boko Haram there is not much South Africa can do.

Relations between Africa’s two most powerful states are not of the best. Competition for leadership on the continent has much to do with the less than cordial relationship.

In September 2014, there was an incident that further dented relations between them when two Nigerian passengers were taken into custody after landing at Lanseria airport. They carried three suitcases containing R102 million in cash for what seemed to be a dodgy arms deal.

They claimed to be acting on behalf of the Nigerian intelligence service. South Africa’s National Conventional Arms Control Committee, which has to approve the import and export of any weapons and issue permits for such transactions, was not aware of any applications in this case.

The incident dented military and security relations and the Nigerian media speculated that the incident was part of Nigeria’s attempts to purchase arms illegally on the black market. A senior Nigerian official admitted that Nigerian authorities had “gotten into trouble” when they shopped for weapons on the black market, including in South Africa.

It is highly unlikely that Nigeria would be receptive to receive South African troops or even logistical assistance. South African defence minister Mapisa-Nqakula is on record that thus far no South African National Defence Force (SANDF) member was deployed to Nigeria. Neither have any official requests for assistance or weapons been received.

Relations were further bedevilled by media reports late last month of about 100 ex-soldiers of the former South African Defence Force (SADF) about to join a multinational private military expert team in Nigeria. The team, including Britons, Indians and other nationalities, were reportedly recruited by Nigeria to provide training and expertise to improve Nigeria’s fighting capabilities against Boko Haram.

The reaction of the South African Government (SAG) to the reports in the persons of the ministers of Defence and of International Relations and Co-operation was scathing. 

Minister for International Relations and Co-operation, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, declared herself “dismayed by the development”.

The Minister of Defence, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, went much further, labelling the ex-soldiers involved “mercenaries” who should be arrested on their return and prosecuted under the Regulation on Foreign Military Assistance Act in order “to make an example of them”. 

There can be no argument that government has an obligation and responsibility to stop South African citizens from acting and operating as mercenaries and soldiers of fortune. South Africa’s past history in this regard is a grim reminder.

But there seems to be some inconsistencies at play in this instance: Why is the same concern not expressed regarding the scores of South Africans, including ex- SADF soldiers working in Nigeria in the security sector in various capacities and on various levels?; What if they share their experience and skills with Nigerian army personnel?


Considering the threat Boko Haram poses to stability in Nigeria and adjacent region, and the urgent calls for assistance, the question arises whether the SAG’s reaction and particularly that of the minister of defence is not an overreaction and an opportunity lost?

It is almost beyond belief to have a SANDF spokesperson saying the SANDF was unaware of former South African soldiers being deployed to Nigeria to help in the fight against Boko Haram.

If true and not a deliberate posturing, it is a startling admittance of yet another intelligence failure. How could South African intelligence be unaware of such plans and/or the involvement of ex-SADF soldiers?

And, if the SAG was aware and upset, why wait until the matter reached the media, prompting unsettling questions and debate?

The defence minister’s admission that she did not know whether South Africa had engaged with Nigeria about the issue on a diplomatic level, borders on the shocking. How can there be no liaison between departments on an issue as sensitive and controversial as this?

Although the media has fallen silent on the issue, for now, it could be awkward if this turns out to be a legitimate request by the Nigerian government for assistance.

It could also be argued that the SAG let slip an opportunity to mend fences with Nigeria and confirms the view that paranoia sometimes still overrides rational thinking in the SAG and that ghosts are chased where there are none. 

by Garth Cilliers

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